White House press secretary Josh Earnest says the success of U.S. foreign policy in Yemen should not be assessed in relation to the success or the stability of the country’s government, noting that the Middle Eastern nation — the region’s poorest — has long been in a “chaotic situation.”

“The measure of U.S. policy should not be graded against the success or the stability of the Yemeni government. That’s a separate enterprise,” Earnest said in a roundtable discussion on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” on Thursday, adding that “the goal of U.S. policy toward Yemen has never been to try to build a Jeffersonian democracy there. The goal of U.S. policy toward Yemen is to make sure Yemen cannot be a safe haven that extremists can use to attack the West and to attack the United States.”

Pressed on the administration’s earlier assessment that Yemen was a “model” for successful counterterrorism strategies, Earnest said the U.S. still has the capacity to strike when necessary against extremists within the country.

“There is no doubt that we would prefer a situation where there is a stable government, where there was a place U.S. personnel could operate inside of Yemen, could coordinate directly with Yemeni security forces to take the fight to these extremists,” he conceded.

Yemen’s president, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, reportedly fled the country on Wednesday as Iranian-backed Houthi rebels moved in on the government’s de facto capital of Aden and Saudi Arabia led airstrikes against the Shiite insurgents, who have seized much of the country in recent months.

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